Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Spielberg Zombie of 'Super 8'

"Super 8" is being billed as J.J. Abrams' "coming out party." I know, it's kind of weird, especially since the guy's been a veritable force of nature on television, co-creating "Alias" and "Lost," and already slung his name into the director's chair on 2006's "Mission: Impossible III" and 2009's "Star Trek." But this is his first time working with a non-property project. "Super 8" is entirely his own, his chance to show Hollywood and its ticket buyers what we have to look forward to from the mind of Mr. Abrams.

And he decided it would be best to do an homage to Steven Spielberg.

Don't get me wrong, I found "Super 8" alternately thrilling and tiring. As a narrative homage, it works almost perfectly. Set in 1979, "Super 8" is effectively a mashed, blended, pureed version of "Jaws," (1975) "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," (1977) and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). A monster who gradually gets revealed? Check. A small community struggling with a crisis? Check. An authority figure struggling with his commitment to a flawed system? Check. A child repairing issues with a father? Check. An alien? Check. A government conspiracy? Check. A fascination with visual effects? Check.

Oh yes, it's all on display. Displacing the California suburbs of Spielberg's "E.T" to the midwest of a small Ohio town, "Super 8" is resolutely a fairy tale in the vein of the aforementioned 1982 film and others like Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me." It is a parable of youth, about how kids simply get things grown-ups can't, how their perspectives should be valued, endorsed, and praised.

And Abrams does this all very well. He directs his child actors (chief among them Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) remarkably, and they truly carry the movie. His lighting, which always lets streaks of light dash across the frame, and his camera motions, which are often grand and fluid, are very spell-binding. The sound is creepy, and even composer Michael Giacchino channels early John Williams in his brass-heavy, melodramatic score.

Yes, how you feel about Steven Spielberg will pretty much dictate how you feel about "Super 8."

And its devices aren't exactly hidden. The kids in the film are filmmakers themselves, and their titular super 8 movie camera captures a train derailment that leads to some horrible times for their small town. They're making a zombie film, which is why I choose to think of "Super 8" as "Spielberg's Zombie." Like the living dead, Abrams has rummaged around in the blockbuster filmmaker's body of work and revived various organs, wringing them together like a mad scientist bent on creating a new brand of Frankenstein's Monster.

But lest you think I'm harboring a grudge, I genuinely liked "Super 8." The mystery is intriguing, the action spectacular, the visual effects spot-on, and it even manages to wrangle some superb emotional moments. Like I say, it has the best features of Steven Spielberg: Abrams knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to foreground that story against the backdrop of his spectacle.

At the same time though, Abrams's screenplay is plagued by a lot of the problems of Spielberg's films: an overreliance on the fractured father-son dynamic, a retreat into melodrama, the military-as-enemy trope, and yes, a thick layer of sap. Occasionally this feels like design, as in the way the alien functions as a plot device to repair the father-son relationship (a fairly obvious homage). Other times, like the resolution's relatively banal homage to "E.T," feel like it's cheating us from something more, shall I say, true.

If it sounds like "Super 8" is a movie of incredible highs and lows, you're spot on. There are some scenes, specifically the ones where the monster lurks in the background before attacking unsuspecting townsfolk, that are riveting filmmaking. There are visuals that look like the kind of glorified summer entertainment we just have too little of nowadays -- wide-eyed visuals designed to make us go, "woah," without suffocating us in a hundred million dollar's worth of effects.

But as much as I enjoyed "Super 8" and want to see it as a film to curl up with the movie-goer of my youth, I have this nagging concern about what J.J. Abrams is DOING with this film. Yes, Spielberg is one of his idols, and to work with Spielberg as producer to make a big, beautiful homage to Spielberg's early work must give Abrams some personal satisfaction. It gives me some fun satisfaction, too.

All "cinema of homage" comes laced with a concern that the person creating the homage isn't doing anything aside from recreating it. It's what I call, "Brian De Palma Disease." BDPD afflicts a variety of filmmakers so in love with RE-creating that they forget to actually do some original CREATING. Is this what J.J. Abrams's movie career will be? Is he doomed to be our next BDPD filmmaker?

Again, this isn't to slight the film at hand. I enjoy it, but with reservations. I have reservations against what it represents, especially for a filmmaker with such capable directorial merit as Abrams. He can do the work, but if he'd spent more time teasing out the actual Super 8 stuff in the film instead of letting it slide toward the end of the second act (by the time the kids discover what they've accidentally filmed, it actually feels pretty meaningless to the storyline), we might be looking at a great, pulpy work of Americana. We might feel like we're rediscovering, instead of simply replaying, the pleasures of our childhood.

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